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A Human Rights Approach to Economic Equality: Part Two

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of UN Women and the UN Under-Secretary-General.

At the 2010 High-level Plenary Meeting of the UN General Assembly, the Millennium Development Goals were discussed and states called for a new approach to the UN development goals in the post-2015 agenda. On January 19, 2015, UN Women organized a panel, “The Centrality of Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women and Girls for the Post-2015 Development Agenda,” to discuss gender equality within this post-2015 framework. Panellists emphasized, “that only a transformative approach can steer the world onto a more just, and sustainable path.” UN Women’s latest report, Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016: Transforming Economies, Realizing Rights, outlines this transformative approach which addresses pervasive economic inequalities for women, both in the developing and developed world.

Policy Recommendations 

The report identifies ten priority areas for policy makers to enhance women’s economic security and realize equality. UN Women include a list of policy recommendations for each area of concern. One priority area identified is to “create more and better jobs for women.” To do this, the report recommends that states increase demands for labour by pursuing stimulating macroeconomic policy. States are also recommended to create more jobs in areas such as health and public administration by increasing their investment in public services. They are readily encouraged to invest in infrastructure and provide subsidized credit and training to encourage self-employment. In order to provide safe and productive work environments for females holding informal jobs, states are recommended to include the interests of women in urban planning processes.

Another priority identified by the report is to, “reduce occupational segregation and gender pay gaps.” In order to increase prospects for upward mobility, states are recommended to promote training, education and mentorship opportunities for women. The report also recommends women have access to career counselling and be encouraged to study areas traditionally dominated by males, such as science and technology. The report also recommends imposing quotas and targets to increase female presence in decision-making positions, and in male dominated occupations.

Limitations on Policy Recommendations

The message in Progress of the World’s Women is clear: “equal opportunity is not enough to ensure gender equality.” While some states have implemented policies and legislation to encourage women to enter the workforce, there is a “gap between the laws that protect equal rights for women and the realities of inequality in most of the world.” In order to realize gender equality, states must introduce policies to provide women with more free time from domestic and unpaid work, so they can enter the workforce and participate in the economy. Providing men and women with equal opportunities has failed to achieve gender equality, especially in the economic sphere. Rather, “by implementing social policies that provide paid work opportunities for women, protect domestic workers, and provide affordable child care and establish paid leave for working mothers,” states can ensure equality is a reality and not just a concept in the law. This report is the first to recognize this and propose solutions addressing these issues.

The report’s attention to cross-contextual variation among countries is important. The report notes that the level of development and size will influence which recommendations are pragmatic for each state, as not all recommendations may be appropriate. There is no general, uniform solution to gender inequality. In addition, the policy recommendations are limited in two key ways. First, there is an issue of funding. There are concerns over how states, both the poor and rich, will finance proposed reforms to realize economic equality. Some states, like India, are cutting funds for social welfare policies. Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, has reduced federal funding for welfare policies. Spending for Women and Child development in India for 2015-2016 fell 51% from what was allocated in 2014-2015.

A second issue is that of data. In some states, policymakers may lack appropriate data to guide policy implementation and monitor progress. This is a particular issue in the Caribbean, where there is insufficient information available to determine the challenges and create opportunities for women in the economic sphere. Without sufficient data on the situation of women prior to the implementation of any policy recommendations proposed in Progress of the World’s Women, it will be difficult to assess their impact and progress. In order to combat challenges presented by insufficient data, UN Women MCO Caribbean is supporting states in an effort to gather more data on the economic status of women in the region.

Despite these limitations, Progress of the World’s Women is an important report that comes at a critical period. Recognizing that removing legal barriers does not realize gender equality in practice is an important step to creating transformative policies in the post-2015 setting. This transformative approach is necessary as Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, notes, “our globalized economy seems to be working at cross-purposes with our universal vision of women’s rights; it is limiting, rather than enabling them. Where there is no choice, there are few rights.”


Please find the link to Part One of this series here.

Nancy Kanwal
Nancy Kanwal will be entering the final year of her undergraduate studies at McGill University, where she is studying Political Science and Anthropology. Currently, Nancy is an intern at the McGill Humanitarian Studies Initiative, analyst at the G8 Research Group and the McGill Division of the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. On campus, she is an active member of McGill for UN Women National Committee Canada and editor for the McGill International Review (Online). Through her studies and experiences, she became interested in legal pluralism and norm integration during transitional justice processes. Nancy hopes to reconcile her interests in Socio-cultural Anthropology and International affairs by pursuing a career in international humanitarian law and post-conflict reconstruction.